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The Man Who Ate Captain Cook's Big Toe
Typee: by Herman Melville
© 2013 James LaFond
Typee
A Peep at Polynesian Life
Herman Melville, 1844
Introduction, Explanatory Commentary, and Appendixes by John Bryant
Penguin Classics edition, 1996, 327 pages
An interior Map of the Marquis Islands, painting of Polynesian warrior for cover art
The man who went on to write Moby Dick, and has been lauded as the father of American novelists, particularly by speculative-fiction authors, began his literary life writing about his own misadventures. Although the commentary classifies Typee as partially fictitious because of two very brief and believable action scenes that do not exceed anything done by Bear Grylls on Man Against Wild, or by half the young men in Baltimore, I can see why he was held suspect by scholars of his day, and how that animosity has filtered down over the intervening generations to find a place even in the hearts of his admirers.
Typee is something of a memoir/anthropological guide concerning the author’s brief time as a hostage among the natives of the Typee Valley on the island of Nukuheva. He had escaped, along with a friend named Toby, from a whaling ship, and its cruel obsessive captain. The captain obviously served as the prototype for Ahab, the mad captain in Moby Dick, played so well by Gregory Peck and Patrick Stewart.
At the time that Melville wrote travel books were in vogue. Indeed, he was a contemporary of Richard Burton, a more robust and outlandish British version of Melville. Men such as these—literary men with a taste for adventure—went out into a largely unexplored world and came back to write their books. In many ways what they did to chronicle tribal societies on the far corners of the globe, I have aped, in my attempts to document the lives of violent urbanites and quixotic criminals. Such books were then in great demand, and have largely—almost completely—been replaced by documentary films, whose makers, like such authors as Melville and Burton, are sometimes killed, maimed, or abducted for their troubles.
Modern people have much trouble with reading narratives from the 19th Century largely because of the difference in language conventions. This weekend I sat with two older women who had begun reading Pride and Prejudice, because it was a classic. They were having difficulty getting past the prose style. When the questionable passages were read to me I said, “No, people do not speak that way, and they no longer write that way, but she said better in three words what any modern author would have said in five, and it is not grammatically incorrect.”
For this reason the casual reader will not enjoy books like Typee. That is why we employee new generations of writers to re-explore the same human equation as Melville did so well, with a blend of words closer to what advertisers have gotten us used to.
I very much enjoyed reading the book, and marked it up a lot. The man was very quotable in non-fiction. Keep in mind that he encountered a xenophobic stone-age society who had been attacked by European naval forces, and had won their defensive wars thus far. By the time he had written Moby Dick, they were a passing diseased remnant of the primal society he had lived among. Melville’s genius, what made him such an underappreciated novelist, and will keep the general reader from him now, is that he does not seek to comfort the reader.
Top selling fiction [and non-fiction] categories are primarily written to comfort modern, materialistic, female readers, who seek psychologically secure entertainment from within the confines of an information-based society. This translates into them as readers demanding full knowledge of the plot and back-stories. Most people cannot tolerate speculative fiction because good SF does not tell and explain all in one easy wrap-up scene at the end of the story; where, like in a TV crime drama, the criminal confesses all, the lawyer exposes all, flashbacks give full-back-story, and no question of life is left unanswered. This I believe is why we SF authors like Melville. He does this with his nonfiction. Time and time again, he relates a custom he does not understand, proclaims his ignorance of cause and the fate of others. When you are done reading Typee your heart is scattered across a vast ocean where the demonized people he briefly lived with were clearly being wiped out as he wrote his conclusion.
Five chapters are largely devoted to what might be described as the Death of Paradise as he saw it from within. Immediately upon submitting to colonial rule by French, British, and even American missionaries and business cartels, the Polynesians invariable suffered—most notably on Tahiti and Hawaii—as if they were suddenly the poorest unemployed European. He relates over and over again examples of previously charitable primitive societies with little if no difference in wealth between king and commoner, that immediately became stratified into ultra rich and groveling poor, as the missionaries and military and business agents from Europe and America encouraged the rulers to separate themselves from their people.
I have been reading a lot of social and economic commentary about the unhealthy level of wealth disparity in the modern world. For an accelerated case study of how people can go from materially and spiritually rich to totally poor and miserable, one need only read this book. Melville would not be surprised at the fact that six people own 40% of a 300 million person economy. A good example of how sick a purely economic social model is was the concept of taboo, which we got from the Polynesians, and was unknown among my ancestors. Many attacks on Europeans—even cannibalistic ones, including Melville’s capture—seem tied up with the aboriginal belief that the wanton killing of animals for sport was unethical, even sacrilegious; marking the white race as importers of evil ways.
Again, it has taken almost 200 years for the normal educated person to come to the stone-age conclusion that just going out and shooting everything that walks, flies and crawls, until there is nothing left, is not an acceptable way to live in any habitat. To the 19th Century European or American animal life was a God-given resource that could not be depleted. Who was more superstitious, the Polynesian that was afraid to kill everything for fear of invoking supernatural retribution, or the European who believed God would waive his hand and raise all of the animals so they could be killed again? Melville asked these questions when it was sacrilegious to do so.
My favorite pieces of social commentary come in his appendix concerning his time in Hawaii, and the story of the old man who claims to have eaten Captain Cook’s big toe! Almost as good was the story of the Methodist Ministers who advised the local rulers like evil gnomes, enforcing morality laws, that resulted in a large portion of the female population being pimped out by the government to naval crews.
Remember that, despite his social criticism, Melville failed to rise above the sick society he lived in, only managing a few brief escapes, and suffering in the process. For the most part, his narrative is about a domestic life lived briefly in a doomed paradise. The story of his time on Typee is part adventure, part wonderland retreat, part anthropology field-notes, and part social commentary. The feeling that I was left with was one of loss and spiritual dislocation; of a man caught between three worlds: a comfortable stifling one; a dynamic brutal one; and a beautiful dying one. Typee is the story of a man who left the most beautiful women he would ever meet, after she fell in love with him; left her in tears on a beach he’d never see again. No wonder he had to write about it.
I will leave you with some quotes from the text:
“Thrice happy are they who, inhabiting yet some undiscovered island in the middle of the ocean, have never been brought into contaminating contact with the white man.”
“…I am inclined to think that so far as the relative wickedness of the parties concerned, four or five Marquesan islanders sent to the United States as Missionaries might be quite as useful as an equal number of Americans dispatched to the islands in a similar capacity.”
“…however ignorant man may be, he still feels within him his immortal spirit yearning after the unknown future.”
No wonder us Sci-Fi guys like him.
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